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The resilience of postglacial hunter-gatherers to abrupt climate change


Understanding the resilience of early societies to climate change is an essential part of exploring the environmental sensitivity of human populations. There is significant interest in the role of abrupt climate events as a driver of early Holocene human activity, but there are very few well-dated records directly compared with local climate archives. Here, we present evidence from the internationally important Mesolithic site of Star Carr showing occupation during the early Holocene, which is directly compared with a high-resolution palaeoclimate record from neighbouring lake beds. We show that—once established—there was intensive human activity at the site for several hundred years when the community was subject to multiple, severe, abrupt climate events that impacted air temperatures, the landscape and the ecosystem of the region. However, these results show that occupation and activity at the site persisted regardless of the environmental stresses experienced by this society. The Star Carr population displayed a high level of resilience to climate change, suggesting that postglacial populations were not necessarily held hostage to the flickering switch of climate change. Instead, we show that local, intrinsic changes in the wetland environment were more significant in determining human activity than the large-scale abrupt early Holocene climate events.

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We thank the landowners of Star Carr, English Heritage/Historic England, and Natural England for granting permission to excavate. N.M. received funding for this from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement 283938, British Academy grants SG-44333, SG-47081 and SG-50217, English Heritage/Historic England grants 5536, 6064, 6793 and 6796, and Historic England also contributed directly towards the costs of the radiocarbon dating of the site, Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/I015191/1, and the Vale of Pickering Research Trust. R.S. is supported by an Early Career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust (ECF-2015-396). A.A. is supported by the Natural Environment Research Council's London Doctoral Training Partnership.

Author information

S.B., I.C., I.M., P.Lan. and A.P. designed and directed the climate and environmental analysis. S.B. and A.M. analysed the tephra. I.C. directed the carbon and oxygen isotope analyses, which were conducted by L.D., C.D. and R.K. I.M. and A.A. analysed the pollen data. A.P., S.B., I.M., A.A., A.M., I.C. and P.Lin. analysed the lake topography and sediments. B.T. analysed macrofossil data from the site. M.B. and M.T. analysed the archaeological wood and platforms. P.Lan and C.L. analysed the chironomid samples. R.S. carried out the radiocarbon dating. A.B. carried out the Bayesian modelling with assistance from I.M., S.B., A.P., A.A., C.C., B.T., P.Lin. and N.M. N.B. carried out the source proportion mixing modelling. N.M., B.T. and C.C. designed and directed the archaeological excavation. S.B., I.C., A.B., P. Lan. and N.M. led the writing of the paper. All authors contributed to writing the paper, discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Simon Blockley.

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Supplementary Data

Priors, javascript, OxCal and text files forming the basis for the site chronology and integrated lake record

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Context for the site.
Fig. 2: An antler headdress/mask from Star Carr.
Fig. 3: Probability distributions of key parameters of archaeological activities at Star Carr.
Fig. 4: Main elements of the occupation of Star Carr against key palaeoenvironmental indicators for Palaeolake Flixton.
Fig. 5: Summary pollen and isotopic results for core B against depth.
Fig. 6: Structure of the climatic shifts for ACE 2 in comparison with other data.